Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

F&M Convocation 2012

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Below is the Convocation address presented by F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D., on Aug. 28, 2012, at the Alumni Sports & Fitness Center. 

The Dick Winters Challenge

Thank you to the hundreds of people who have made the last five days so successful—the College House leaders, HAs (House advisers), faculty and professional staff, alumni, and especially the OPDs (Orientation planning directors). From the pre-Orientation programs to move-in day, from Friday’s 41 dinners to Saturday's full-class community service, from the faculty fellow presentations to student-led discussions on safety, from the distinct induction traditions of our five College Houses to yesterday’s five fine renditions of thealma mater, this been a warm and well-planned welcome. New students, can you please show your appreciation to all who have reached out to you in friendship?

You've all seen around campus the lovely new banners that read, "Beyond 225: Inspired for Life."

It is indeed beyond inspiring to remember that Franklin College was founded in 1787 with a gift of 200 pounds from the Renaissance American of the revolutionary era, Benjamin Franklin.

…Beyond inspiring to remember that Marshall College was founded in 1835 to honor the legacy of the greatest American jurist, the leader most responsible for the core grounding of the Supreme Court in the U.S. political system, Chief Justice John Marshall.

… And beyond inspiring to remember that, after the two colleges merged in 1853, the first stones of Old Main were lain on this campus before the Civil War, 156 years ago.

Like America itself, our College grows out of the ever-fertile soil of remarkable thinkers, early American leaders such as Benjamin Rush, John Williamson Nevin and Frederick Rauch.

Our founders saw education as a catalyst for personal freedom and public strength. They believed that the country's highest democratic ideals required first-rate higher education. They would expect that, in 2012, we would devote ourselves—mind and heart—to enhancing F&M's impacts on the national stage. New students, you are so fortunate to be starting in the year we celebrate 225 years of leadership. It is a reminder that all who work and learn here are the heirs to excellence made by earlier hands. We are all stewards of the College's enduring values—integrity, honesty, academic excellence, academic freedom, inquiry, dialogue, discovery, community, civility, hard work, holistic learning, and respect for the one and for the many. We ask you today, in this ceremony, wearing your academic robes and the cords of your College Houses, to re-commit to uphold these core values in all that you say and do.

In that spirit, today I'd like to reflect upon an alumnus whose image adorns this stage and your program, Maj. Richard Winters '41.

Dick Winters was born in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in 1918, grew up in Lancaster and began his F&M education in 1937. From Larry Alexander’s book, "Biggest Brother," I learned that Dick brought to college an iron-strong drive and focus. He came from a working family and started far behind academically. Realizing he needed to sacrifice playing the sports he loved in order to catch up, and at the same time avoiding drinking and excessive socializing, he created for himself at F&M a transformational liberal arts education. The courses he loved most were philosophy and theology, because they made him think, and he graduated with the highest grades in his class in economics.

After graduation, Dick enlisted in the Army, which took real courage. This was 1941. Everyone knew that the global landscape had grown tragically dark and that the vast, growing evil of Adolph Hitler's regime could only be stopped with force.

While Dick Winters had gained no military training at F&M, he learned how to learn here, and that made all the difference. During basic training, his first job after college, Dick took it upon himself at night to assiduously review all of the tactics and maneuvers he'd learned during the day. True to his education here, he began keeping a detailed diary of all he was doing and learning. He continued to abstain from alcohol and built his body for the rigors ahead. As a result, this liberally educated enlisted man quickly earned an invitation to become an officer, a crucial accomplishment.

At Officer Candidate School, he witnessed a new type of unit, the 101st Airborne, the brave paratroopers who drop into battle from the sky. Dick admired the "swag" of the Screaming Eagles and, against his family's wishes, made the bold move to join them.

On June 6, 1944, or D-Day, serving as a platoon leader in Company E, or Easy Company, Dick Winters was one of 150,000 Allied soldiers to invade German-occupied France through Normandy. Air-dropped at 2 a.m. into hostile fire, unable to see the ground beneath him, his first task was to survive, and then to locate fellow soldiers in the darkness and find a way to take out Nazi patrols.

Even though Dick's equipment flew off during the jump, he kept his wits and rounded up some men on the ground. On the first day he led a group of about 13 men who overwhelmed 50 German soldiers and destroyed four Howitzers that were shelling U.S. soldiers on a crucial road leading from Utah Beach to the French countryside—a feat of strategic brilliance and courage still taught at West Point.

The next day, when the men learned that Easy Company Cmdr. Thomas Meehan died with 10 men in a plane crash on D-Day, Dick was made acting commander. This meant leading men in their painstaking advances across perilous rural terrain, crawling through mud to scout enemy positions, directing men in deadly battles to capture a small bridge or a farmhouse or a street corner, all for weeks on end, all in scenes of slaughter.

I won't try to summarize Dick Winters' accomplishments in his year of leadership in war. In September, he took part in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, where he was again a hero. In December he served with distinction in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. In March, he was promoted to Acting Battalion Commander and led defensive maneuvers in Germany. When his troops helped liberate the Kaufering IV concentration camp, he looked at the evidence of genocide and said: "Now I truly know why we are here."

Major Winters triumphed with honor, not simply because he was brave and strong, but also because he was smart and mentally prepared. His liberal arts education at F&M played a defining role. It contributed to his ability to evaluate options based on limited information, to intuit the motives and fears that drive others, to make ethical decisions under duress, to value the keeping a daily journal, even in war, and to be an adaptive leader in dire situations.

After the war, he returned home for many decades of productive citizenship.

Then, when Dick when was in his 70s, the historian Stephen Ambrose published the book "Band of Brothers," which drew heavily on Dick's unpublished war diaries.

He was in his 80s when Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg created the celebrated television mini-series of the same name, casting the actor Damien Lewis as the drama's central hero, Dick Winters.

The story takes one more turn. This past summer, on the 68th anniversary of D-Day, the World War II Foundation unveiled in Normandy a beautiful statue of Major Winters, now pictured in your program.

Think about that: Within one month in 1944, 1 million Allied soldiers entered World War II through Normandy. There were countless acts of heroism and sacrifice and bravery. A member of this college—your college—earned the honor of having a statue of his likeness placed for all time on that hallowed ground.

We offer the example of Major Winters on this important day, when you don your robes and receive your cords and take your place at an historic American college. There are three reasons why.

First, Dick Winters consistently lived his life with virtues worthy of your emulation. Hard work. Respect for others. Intellectual seriousness. Moral clarity. Honor. Humility. Leadership through service. He is remarkable, but also representative, because these are virtues any of us can adopt as our own.

That's why we have just created a new medal with which, at the Senior Awards Ceremony, we will recognize students who demonstrate great determination and strength of character: The Major Dick Winters '41 Award for Perseverance and Leadership.

Second, we present Major Winters to you, on this day of transition and growth, because your generation also has what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called in 1936, "a rendezvous with destiny."

The students who entered F&M in 1937 with Dick Winters—members of the Greatest Generation—would go on to experience the war against fascism, the end of the Great Depression, the advent of the Nuclear Age and the massive social changes of the 1960s. Again and again, they were called to adaptive leadership.

You, too, face the protean challenges of an uncertain age—globalization, climate change, the digital revolution, global terrorism, and America’s remarkable demographic, technological and economic changes.

The investment you're making now in developing your mind is the best possible preparation for your rendezvous with destiny.

A Franklin & Marshall education is about far more than a first job or any one job. It is about developing your capacity to form complex thoughts, your intellectual habits, your comfort with doubt, your sensibility, your curiosity, your language skills, your analytical abilities, your historical knowledge, your ability to relate cultures to one another, your clarity of thought and clarity of prose.

It is about setting of a trajectory of lifelong learning, growth, meaning, and integrity.

This timeless college, this accomplished faculty of scholars, the ideas we challenge you to engage, our seminars, our traditions, our values, our community: These will be resources for life as you live and shape the issues of your age.

Finally, we ask you to reflect upon the life and standards of Major Winters for a third reason. You now share with him the rich common ground of place and culture. He walked this campus. He learned in some of these buildings. He took our curriculum. He accepted our standards. 

I love the line from Larry Alexander's book where Dick describes the central lesson he learned at F&M that would guide him throughout his life: "Always do your best in everything you try."

If you do that here and now—if you always do your best in everything you try—you will create an education of lifelong value and meaning. That is the Dick Winters challenge and the Franklin & Marshall tradition—to always do our best, in everything we try.

Thank you, and welcome to the education of a lifetime.

  • The Dick Winters Challenge
  • A printable file of the remarks delivered by President Porterfield at the Franklin & Marshall College Convocation ceremony on August 28, 2012.

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